Thursday, October 31, 2013

Red October

The Red Sox won the World Series last night in a 6-1 home game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

So, that's pretty great.

But since everyone else is already talking about that, I'd like to write more generally. About why baseball is great.

It is, I like to say, a game of suspense.

I grew up in a big baseball family. In Oakland, CA the A's were my home team. I have many fond memories of going to the park as kid.

Waiting in line for hours to get a free Miguel Tejada bobble head doll. Getting there early to watch batting practice. Memorizing the roster. The batting averages. The ERAs.

When Jason Giambi played for the A's, Crazy Train was his entry music. They used to play Darth Vader's march if we were up around the 8th inning, but I can't quite remember the rules for when they did that. I used to always lose at dot racing.

And I never felt more patriotic than when I heard the national anthem before a game, and few things feel more communal than a rousing round of Take me Out to the Ball Game during the 7th inning stretch.

Baseball was also an affordable pastime growing up in Oakland. Average people could go to games regularly. I used to go with my whole family. Aunts, uncles, cousins.

I love Fenway, but the first time I went - with my Grandmother for a Red Sox/Yankees game - we dropped $50 per ticket. And this was pre-2004 series victory. Almost sounds reasonable given what I'd expect to pay for a comparable game today, but still a far cry from the $1 Wednesdays back in Oakland. It's a shame.

To be clear, I am a Red Sox fan. It was a long and difficult transition, but after 13 years in Massachusetts, I got there somewhere along the way. I haven't watched an A's/Red Sox game in 13 years though. Too painful.

And finally, I can't talk about baseball without a shout out to the one and only Richard Delaney. My late cousin and fellow Oakland resident, Richard used take me to games with his family somewhat frequently. But he was also a...somewhat opinionated radical labor organizer.

And whenever I think of baseball, I think of Richard Delany complaining about the wave.

At the ball park one summer day, the energized crowd started doing the wave. I was pumped. Everyone has to work together to make it happen. And it goes round the stadium. An artful human force.

Richard was not pleased.

After a rough back and forth, Richard finally looked at me dead on and said:

"Don't you know it's just a capitalist conspiracy to create pliable people through the illusion of collaboration?"

I hadn't known that. But now I do. I guess.

And I still love baseball.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wealth migration

I spend a lot of time thinking about gentrification.

Poor and/or working class communities begin to develop a hip vibe. College grads not ready for the suburbs move in. Artists can afford the rent. Start up business can afford the low capital costs as well.

Pretty soon, everyone wants to live there and folks from that community can't afford to live there any more.

But gentrification is a complicated story.

Sometimes it's called revitalization.Sometimes there's high crime and no jobs. Sometimes a community needs a little something to make it better. Sometimes that's what the residents want. Sometimes the residents who leave a community are cashing out - glad of the retirement plan secured by their now-valuable house.

I've always looked at gentrification from within the view of my communities. Somerville, MA is rapidly gentrifying. Parts of Oakland, CA are gentrified and other parts...could use a little revitalization (I say with love).

But what does gentrification look like on a larger scale? Where are all these new people in my community coming from and perhaps more importantly...what happens to the communities they leave behind?

A recent paper, Why Has Regional Income Convergence in the U.S. Declined?, which I saw presented by co-author Daniel Shoag, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, got at this question.

Shoag compares state-level economic snapshots over time with an eye towards understanding how people migrate within the U.S. over time.

I won't go through his math in detail here, but essentially he argued that in 1960, a state where you could earn 1% more for your work cost 1% more to live in. And that was true across job and skill types. This created income convergence as people from all classes migrated to "wealthier" cities.

Comparatively, in 2010, a state where you could earn 1% more for your work costs an average of about 2% more to live in. This leads to "skill sorting" as "high skilled" (white collar) workers move to wealthier areas while lower income workers move out.

Shoag traces this all back to the increase in housing regulations of the 1970's - leading to dramatically increased housing costs in "wealthy" cities.

That's doubtless a piece of the puzzle, though I'm not sure whether it's the ultimate cause. Either way, though, it's important to think about this greater sorting happening around us.

In Somerville, MA poor people might be getting pushed out, but in Flint, MI they might wish for such "revitalization."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Times have changed

On the news this morning, a commentator was decrying children's overuse of computers, television, and all manner of electronic devices.

The concern was brought on by a new study out from Common Sense Media. Here are some numbers for you:
  • 72% of kids have used mobile devices
  • 38% of children under 2 have used a mobile device
  • Children's average daily use of mobile devices has tripled since 2011, and is now at 15 minutes per day
Now, if I were a parent, I might indeed find this concerning. I'd probably appreciate the American Academy of Pediatrics' new guide on how to create a family media plan. Most families, it would seem, believe children should have rules. So whether it's a curfew or a media plan you're into, I am not here to judge.

But, I would say, the world is not ending.

At least not because of this.

Hearing the commentator talk about how things were "back in his day," only makes me roll my eyes. Whenever anyone complains about how society is rotting and how modernity has sucked all sense of humanity from us, all I can think is:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today,
And black's white today,
And day's night today...

Written almost 80 years ago by Cole Porter, those lyrics are from, you guessed it, Anything Goes.

To be fair, there are plenty of people who think society's been rotting for more than 80 years. Many theorists trace the curse of modernity back to the Enlightenment or thereabouts. When science made us lose our souls.

But that is a subject for another day.

The point, today, is this: create whatever guidelines work for you and your family, but blustering about how technology is draining our children's brains does nothing. I have survived radio, television and video games and no doubt plenty of others have emerged unscathed as well.

Calm down and buck up. I think we're going to make it.

It is a shame, though - back in my day, the world was perfect.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Villains always blink their eyes

When I was a child, my father made a joke about Holly from Miami, FLA. When I didn't get it he, like any good father, made me listen to some Lou Reed. 

I don't think that's how most people were introduced to this musical legend who passed away over the weekend, but, I guess, that's what happens when you grow up in Northern California.

Years later, when I first saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I identified with Hedwig's fictional story of growing up with his head in the oven. Listening to Walk on the Wild Side.

I never did that, but it certainly felt that way sometimes.

As if the whole world would melt away. No troubles or concerns. Just the music. The beauty and the sorrow.

Incidentally, I don't think I can mention Hedwig without commenting that my first job out of college was running lights for that show. Also, I still laugh at the line:

I got kicked out of university after delivering a brilliant lecture on the aggressive influence of German philosophy on rock and roll entitled "You, Kant, Always Get What You Want."

But I digress.

On the news this morning, someone described Reed as the pessimists' response to the optimism of hippies. I'm not sure I agree with that, but I can see where it comes from.

His music can be dark and gritty. It can be tough and uncomfortable.

But it's also beautiful.

Lou Reed taught me that people are often not what you expect, that you should be whoever you are, and that life is hard...but that's okay.

To live life fully, you've got to take the good with the bad. Just experience. And be. Live. Love. Lose.

What else is there?

Some people, they like to go out dancing
And other peoples, they have to work (Just watch me now!)

And there's even some evil mothers
Well they're gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
Y'know that, women, never really faint
And that villains always blink their eyes (ooh!),
And that, y'know, children are the only ones who blush!
And that, life is just to die! 

(Sweet Jane, The Velvet Underground)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Fiction Friday - the call

Last week, I started Fiction Friday, a futuristic film noir. Below the story continues.

Also, I perhaps should have warned people that my fiction tends to be dark. There'll be some light moments coming. But, I fear, not today.

The world was empty. A gnawing pit. Sinking. Darkness. He can't begin to describe how he feels.

Feel. The word was wrong. He felt nothing. He felt confused. Why would someone play such a cruel joke. His mother had called him. Tears in her voice. So convincing. But it couldn't be true. It was a joke. A terrible joke. It didn't make any sense.

Because it wasn't a joke. He knew that, but he didn't. It wasn't a joke. His mother had called to tell him. She wouldn't make that up. His brother was. Was. He couldn't say it. He couldn't think it.

The police must've been wrong. That was it. His mother was confused. That's why she'd say such a thing. It was all a hoax. Or a misunderstanding.

Mitch'd call any second. With some story. Some explanation. Something.

It couldn't be true.

But it was.


Gabe shook himself and looked around. He wasn't sure how much time had passed since he got off the phone. It felt like a life time.

He looked up as his wife came back in. A sad smile. Comfort in the cold darkness.

"Talked to Reyes," she said softly. "She'll let the foreman know. So. You don't need to worry about work."

They sat in silence.

"I'll start packing," she breathed. "We should head out in not too long. Should be with your family."


He should be with his family. He should.

But he couldn't. Not any more. His family would never be together again. He'd never be with his brother again. Never see his brother again.

His brother. His brother. His brother was.

His brother was murdered.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Career motivations and social outcomes

In public service work, does it make a difference whether a person is motivated by personal, career goals or by altruistic, social goals?

Well, I don't know. But it's a really interesting question.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear Nava Ashraf, Associate Professor, Harvard Business School, speak about her recent paper "Do Gooders and Doctors: Evidence on Selection and Performance of Health Workers in Zambia."

In Zambia, there's a great shortage of health care workers. The government is actively recruiting for these positions and has a particular interest in providing good training and career development opportunities in order to build an infrastructure of health workers at all professional levels. 

These positions also have a meaningful social motivation and are critical to improving the health of communities. 

This dual goal on the part of the government provided a framework for testing applicant motivations and outcomes.

Working in 48 Zambian districts, Ashraf and her team advertised for health care workers using two different approaches. In half the districts, job announcements focused on the career benefits of the position. In the other half, announcements focused on the community benefits.

Perhaps more interesting, the hiring committees were also part of the experiment - in the "career" districts, hiring committees only saw the "career" oriented announcement, in the "social" districts they only saw the "social" advertisement.

So, what happened?

Well, the two pools of candidates were fairly similar. The "career" pool was slightly more skilled (as measured by test scores), but the pools were the same size, contained equal numbers of women, and showed similar results on a range of psychosocial tests. 

Following interviews and hiring, the pools changed. Higher skilled people fared better in the social group - equalizing those finalists with the skill range of their career counterparts. Women were more likely to be hired by the social group - skewing what had been equal pools.

Ashraf theorizes this is an expression of social bias - that hiring committees saw women as better suited to social vocations but not to careers.

So the two groups go off, train together for a year, and then begin working in the community.

The main job of these health workers is to do home health visits. But, Ashraf found, workers from the social group completed significantly fewer visits than their career counterparts. Instead, it seems, they spent more time on paper work.

Now, number of visits is an imperfect measure of success. There's no data about the quality of care or patient satisfaction. But Ashraf is quick to point out that the primary job is to see clients and record health data - so the mere count of clients is still a valuable assessment tool.

The career-oriented workers, she argues, are better at their jobs.

Interestingly, Ashraf doesn't draw this out to a general conclusion about the worth of career-oriented verse social-oriented people.

Instead, she puts this idea on it's head - what if, she asks, advertising the unexpected aspect of a job is what brings in the best candidates?

Healthcare, you could argue, is intrinsically socially motivated and often perceived as such. Therefore, advertising it in a career-oriented way brought in better candidates.

If you took a position that had the opposite reputation - one where people automatically thought of the career benefits - and instead advertised the social benefits, perhaps then you would get better employees for these jobs as well. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


One of my blog posts from earlier this week has received over 200 views. Not so impressive in the grand scheme of the Internet, but still, more than I would have expected.

People I don't know have read it.

Earlier this week I happened to speak with a young woman in a meeting. "I feel like I'm in a room with the most successful people ever," she told me. "I don't know if I should speak up - what could they learn from me?"

To me, it was obvious that she should speak up. It was obvious that her voice was valued. It was obvious that her voice should be valued.

I told her that. I'm not sure she believed me.

But she spoke up anyway.

Similarly, I find it impossible to imagine that 200 people could possibly care what I have to say. Even if they clicked on the link and decided it was terrible - for at least a moment they saw something of value.

I say this not as a cry for help or to fish for praise, but too give voice to something everyone experiences.

We're all the awkward kid in the cafeteria, desperately hoping the cool kids will allow us to sit with them. Whether the cool kids are jocks, cheerleaders, band geeks, science nerds, theater kids, or outright outcasts, we're all hoping one of them will let us in.

We're all hoping to belong.

And we all do belong. Not just in one clique but all of them. We all have something have something to offer. We all bring value.

But here's the thing: it's those situations in which we feel most uncomfortable, in which we feel most like nobody - it's those situations in which we most need to speak up.  

If you believe that diverse voices bring value, then you must believe that your diverse voice brings value, too.

Sometimes I joke that, just like Odysseus, I am Nobody. The joke, of course, being that Odysseus wasn't nobody. And he was pretty arrogant.

But, it's a helpful reminder to me.

It doesn't matter whether I think I'm nobody. It doesn't matter whether I feel awkward or like I don't belong. It's my responsibility to speak up. It's my responsibility share my perspective.

And it's your responsibility too.

If you're sitting in the back of the class, feeling hesitant about getting involved, worried what others might think, just remember: they need you. They need your ideas, opinions and insights. They need your voice.

Whether you believe it or not, it's true. They need you.

So speak up, Nobody, I want to hear from you. I need to hear from you.

(No cyclopes were harmed in the writing of this post. Well, maybe one.) 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Truth in advertising

We all expect a little spin in advertising. If you're a pessimist you expect a lie, while at best, an optimist expects exaggeration.

And as people (or consumers, one might say), we get attuned to tuning out. We expect the spin, the exaggeration, or even the outright lie.

And that just adds to the noise as marketers compete in an arms race for attention, taking more elaborate steps to attract attention while we get better at ignoring their tactics.

Sometimes, I dream about doing a totally honest marketing campaign. Saying the things you're not supposed to say. Saying the things everyone's thinking.

I think it would be refreshing. I think that would get attention.

Imagine, for example one day, you got a bulk mailer with this scrawled on the outside:

I don't know about you, but I'd open that.

Monday, October 21, 2013

I'm concerned about the blueberries

Last week, a strange billboard caught marketers' attention. "I'm concerned about the blueberries," it proclaimed.

As theories swirled about what's so concerning about blueberries, marketers wondered what evil genius came up with this great buzz campaign.

I, for one, imagined an M. Night Shyamalan sequel to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Most speculation about the billboard, which appeared on Interstate 69 in Flint, Michigan, pointed towards some activists/political group trying to make a statement about agriculture, drugs, or corporate America.

But, as it turns out, the explanation is much more interesting.

Businessman Phil Shaltz paid for the billboard after vacationing in Alaska. As AdWeek reports, when Shaltz asked a young tour guide how things were going, the guide responded simply, "I'm concerned about the blueberries."

Specifically, he was worried there wouldn't be enough rain for the state's blueberry crop. As Shaltz thought about this interaction, he began to see "blueberries" as a metaphor. 

"We all go through the day and we see people who have blueberries—their own issues—and we don’t do anything," he explained.

So he paid for a billboard. Not so much to bring attention to the problem of rainfall and blueberry crops in Alaska, but to remind people to help each other.

And it's doubtless true that we don't do enough for each other. That we should each do more to support each other and sort out difficult "blueberries."

But I see the problem of blueberry-denial a little differently. From what I can tell, the root of the problem isn't necessarily that we see each other's blueberries and decide not to act - it's that we don't take the time to acknowledge each other's blueberries in the first place.

Everyone has issues. Some days are good and some days are bad, but we're all bearing our burdens. Some people do this loudly and some people do it silently. And some people complain loudly about one issue to avoid drawing attention to another.

And many people are so busy dealing with their own blueberries, that they forget to inquire about another's. And many people are so busy hiding their own blueberries, that they forget that other people might care.

So, yes, I am concerned about the blueberries.

And I hope you are too.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Fiction Friday

I've been feeling a little uninspired on Fridays lately. So, I'm going to try something a little different.

I used to write a lot of fiction, and I always appreciated it as a venue for exploring difficult questions. Both in reading and writing, these imaginary worlds create space to ask new questions and to look at problems in a new way. You can play with society a lot more when it's not real lives you're talking about.

A world's been taking shape in my mind over the last week. Since I wrote about imaging utopia. It started forming when I found myself asking, what would it look like if a perfect society was full of imperfect people? I've hardly had a second to explore this world - a sort of futuristic film noir, gritty but beautiful - so I will do so here. Perhaps in serial format, updating on Fridays. At least, I believe the below is intended to be an initial installment. We'll see how it goes.

O, for a muse of fire.


Detective Jones stared a long time. She'd seen bodies before, sure, but nothing like this. It had always been random accidents or natural causes. Occasionally, a sudden crime of passion. A misstep, a blood clot. The usual. Tragedies all.

But this was different. This was intentional. Someone had done this. And not out of clumsiness. Out of...she didn't even know. What could possibly make someone do this to another human being?

Detective Jones let out a long breath. "Alright, Harrison, I'm packing it up. Let me know if you get anything new." She nodded to the medical examiner as she left. 

The chief'd want to talk to her for sure. This was gonna be a day. This was gonna be a case. She'd been a cop for ten years, but nothing had prepared her for this.

As she walked to subway, she went over the details of the case in her head. Forced entry. Violent assault. Neighbors saw nothing. Well, nothing of value. Glimpsed a shadow fleeing the scene after they awoke from the noise.

She'd have to inform the family. Maybe they would have something. Known enemies? But enemies exchange hard words, they don't do things like that. Or at least they didn't. 

Maybe she'd call her contacts in other cities. See if they'd every heard of anything like this...this premeditated murder? The concept was unfathomable.

She'd better call her wife. Let her know she'd be late for dinner.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Singing Science

There's a long and proud tradition of totally nerdy sciences songs.

Flanders and Swann, Tom Lehrer, They Might Be Giants, Atom and His Package, and MC Hawking (You down with Entropy? Yeah you know me!) are just a few of the luminaries in this field.

There are so many great nerdy science songs that I once made a mixed tape on this subject (recorded off vinyl) for my high school chemistry teacher. This was the same class where a student took on the persona of a rapper he called ROYGBIV, and where some of my classmates wrote an amazing composition about the Chernobyl disaster set to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song. I've still got the lyrics somewhere.

This class was also when I decided to major in physics as an undergrad.

So I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised that a teacher in Oakland, CA (Hollllla!) has started a blog of his students rapping about science. Science with Tom features such hits as Rosalind Franklin vs. Watson & Crick and Dwarf Planet, Wassup?

Being somewhat partial to Pluto, I include that particularly ditty below:

Well, school in Oakland has certainly changed a lot since my day.

While science songs may be nothing new, I'm excited to see in this digital era an educator who's actively sharing this work and who hopes "that teachers and students across the world will utilize, remix, and reinvent these videos."  And the comments on his blog and YouTube channel indicate that people are doing just that.

Science is fun. And it's funny. And it takes creativity. It's not some velociraptor waiting to attack. Like many things, it's simply the story of people trying to make sense of the world around them.

Singing and dancing isn't the only way to bring out those aspects, but it seems to be an effective way. So go on ahead - keep on singing.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The ones we've been waiting for (hint: it's us)

Many of us are waiting for Godot.

In some ways, it's easier. There's so much to do and accomplish in our daily lives that some problems just seem insurmountable without someone else to lead the charge.

"I'll work on that issue," I'll think to myself, "Just as soon as Godot gets here. Then I'll help out. Then it will be amazing. Then there's nothing we can't accomplish."

But, of course, Godot never comes.

And so I go about my aburdist French life. Doing this and that. Nibbling around the edges of change.

But perhaps it is time to stop waiting. Godot will ever come. No Deus ex Machina will descend from the heavens proclaiming all fair and just in the world. No change will come without each of us - individuals, all - working for it.

I recently finished reading my colleague Peter Levine's book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: the Promise of Civic Renewal in America.

Levine explores how we can collectively tackle what he calls "wicked problems." Those societal issues that are so complicated that your brain starts to leak out your ear when you think about them too hard. Or maybe that's just me.

For example, creating a just and fair society is not simply a matter of raising the minimum wage - as if that were a simple matter. It's about equalizing opportunities throughout everybody's life. Ensuring that kids have healthy food to eat, safe homes to live in, and enriching opportunities which teach leadership and agency.

But when it's a battle to make a small change like minimum wage, how can I even think about tackling bigger issues? When trying to unravel these deeper problems, I quickly go down a rabbit hole of economics, psychology, history and more. Finding fallible people and fallible systems.

Eventually I get frustrated. Why can't it just work? If no one wants children to die terribly in violence, why doesn't it just stop? Why does it have to be so complicated? And how on earth could I even begin to address a situation I don't truly understand?

The truth is, I can't design a perfect world. I'm not infallible or omniscient. I don't know what's best for everyone. I hardly know what's best for me. Even if I spent every hour of every day reading relevant literature and thinking deeply about these problems, I still wouldn't have the solutions. Godot would never come.

And that's okay.

Because you're not infallible or omniscient either. And neither is anyone else. It seems pretty clear our elected officials are not. Our journalists, moguls, and social icons are similarly wanting.

We're all broken, scarred, scattered people doing our best in a difficult world. There will always be problems. Even if we could end poverty and war, there would still be disaster and disease.

The best we can do is work together. To talk to each other. As people. As individuals. As beings whose experiences have shaped our views and opinions. As creatures who see the world very differently, but who ultimately all want something better. For ourselves and for our children.

If we indeed are the ones we've been waiting for, then perhaps I would say, it is time to stop waiting.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Make some noise

It's hard to describe the scene that is Honk! The annual gathering of activist street bands that takes over the streets and spirit of Somerville every Columbus Day weekend.

Since its founding, more than 50 bands from around the world have come to Somerville to rejoice, protest, and express. Some are radical, some are overtly political, and many have a crafting ability that would put a radicalized Martha Stewart to shame.

When the bands are in town, the streets come alive with music, voices, and collective power. The staging area for the Honk! parade, pictured above, is a marvel of costumes, characters, and music.

As the Honk! website explains,"they honk their horns because it’s the best way they know to protest a world of violence and oppression...each band has a unique sense of humor to complement their sound, as they mock and discredit the roots of hatred and injustice through the whimsical act of making music together. The result is a spectacle that is radical and subversive without being militant or sanctimonious."

Making music together.

It sounds so simple. It makes me think of school children playing xylophones or regimented marching bands.

But the music of Honk! is alive. It inhales through every player and exhales through every listener. It pulses through the crowd. A calming cacophony. A baby joyously banging on pots and pans like that's the only thing in the world.

There is hope and anger. Passion and despair. A public community of sound and expression.

Life writ loud.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Not a holiday

My rules for blogging is that I should post once every day - excluding weekends, holidays, and any day I claim off in advance.

Today is kind of a weird one. It's technically a holiday. I have the day off work and I spent the morning tackling some quality yard work.

But I've never been a big fan of Columbus, and therefore have never been a big fan of Columbus day. So how should one celebrate this so called holiday?

Well, since I'm basically off today, I'm going to phone it in and suggest you read this excellent post from the Oatmeal. But since it's not really a holiday, I can say that I blogged.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Fighting the same battles

Someone recently told me, "We keep fighting the same battles. Who has power changes. When it's strategic to act changes. Who's on our side changes. But it's still the same battles."

And it's true.

It sounds kind of depressing, but it doesn't have to be.  Optimists would say that the "arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

And that sounds plausible, though I guess you'd have to ask a historian.

But I also think of my late cousin Richard. A labor organizer who got his start (I believe) organizing with the United Farm Workers, he used to joke that over the course of his illustrious career unions went from their strongest point in history to their weakest.

And while there are many things in the world today that are better than they were, there are also many things that aren't so good and have even gotten worse in recent years.

I often think of life as a sine wave - sometimes good and sometimes bad.

But maybe the sine wave does...bend towards justice.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Imagining Utopia

I often wonder what utopia would look like.

As an activist, I fight for a better world, but what exactly does that mean? In daily life, there are specific issues I care about and mostly I fight to move the needle - even a little bit - on those.

But what would the world look like if I could win every war, if I could make all the rules and pass all the judgements?

I don't know.

My first instinct is to imagine a world where everyone's treated equitably - not in a creepy, Harrison Bergeron kind of way - but in a way that's fair and that everyone feels good about. (Let's leave aside for today that I can't be more specific as to what that means or how to accomplish it.)

I imagine a world of peace, of understanding, of open minds and open hearts. I imagine a world where everyone just gets along.

And while that does sound lovely in a never-gonna-happen kind of way, I also have to ask myself - is that really the ideal?

In Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers - a social commentary thinly veiled as a science fiction novel - he advocates strongly for the benefit of war and conflict.

Now, if you haven't read Starship Troopers, I highly recommend it. While it did win a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960, the book was highly criticized when it came out (and probably still would be if anyone read still it). Starship Troopers is undeniably pro-war.

And one parable from the book has always stuck with me.

Heinlein describes a planet called Sanctuary. A planet known as a paradise. "A planet as near to Earth as two planets can be."

Yet, Heinlein says, "With all these advantages it barely got away from the starting gate. You see, it's short on mutations; it does not enjoy Earth's high level of natural radiation,"

Plants and people easily thrive on Sanctuary. Farmers can plant wheat without having to weed, because the Earth plant - accustomed to having to compete for survival, easily wipes out the Sanctuary flora, which never had to compete.

So what, Heinlein asks, will become of the humans that have now colonized this imaginary paradise?

"It doesn't do a person any harm not to be radiated; in fact it's a bit safer...But the descendants of those colonists won't evolve...So what happens? Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a space ship? Or will they worry about the fate of their descendants and dose themselves regularly with X-rays or maybe set off lots of dirty-type nuclear explosions each year to build up a fallout reservoir in the atmosphere?"

Conflict, challenge and competition, Heinlein argues, are good.

And I think he's got a point. That's not to say we should turn to war to solve our problems. But differences and disagreements are good.

So what does utopia look like?

Well, I guess I'd have to say that utopia would be hard. We'd have good days and bad days. We'd disagree passionately. But we'd do so civilly. We'd try to understand where people are coming from and embrace disagreements as a growing experience for all involved. We'd believe that the best solutions come from the most voices and that everyone has something to add.

Utopia wouldn't be paradise, but we'd all be working together to get there.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Civic education and solving social problems

Get a bunch of activists in a room, and before long people will start asking, "But what should we do?"

There are many answers to this question including advocacy, direct action and service. One of the most forward thinking answers focuses on K-12 civic education.

Service tends to address the problem (feed the homeless), advocacy tends to address structural inequity (increase the minimum wage), and direct action tends to be some combination of those two (have a food drive while protesting).

But education, it seems to me, addresses the problems in ourselves.

If we were better - if all of us were more equipped to have difficult conversations, to understand pressing social issues, and to know how our institutions should work and do work - then as a society we would be more successful in tackling our problems.

A future where advocacy has resolved all our ills seems implausible, but a future where residents are capable of collaborating and equitably resolving issues gives reason for hope.

So, I was particularly excited  when my colleagues at CIRCLE released a new report this morning: All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement. Coming from CIRCLE's Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, the report is the culmination of a year-long series of ambitious and original research projects.

One particularly compelling point:

"...Research has repeatedly confirmed the following pattern: Young people's civic engagement is strongly related to their individual and family experiences-for example, whether they receive engaging civics education in school, discuss politics at home, or are contacted by a political campaign. The outcomes-voting and knowledge-vary from state to state. State policies regarding civic education and voting laws also vary. But once we consider all the relevant factors together in one statistical model, the impact of the state laws themselves either vanishes or becomes very small."

State policies are still important. Personally, I would advocate for same-day voting, no voter ID requirement, and improved civic education. But even if I won all these policy changes, it wouldn't be enough.

CIRCLE's research shows that "When a controversy arises in the news, teachers tend to use it as an opportunity for civil debate (94.3%)," but nearly a quarter of these teachers also expressed concern that "parents or other adults would object to 'bringing politics' into their classrooms."

We can do better.

As communities, we should support our schools in having these difficult conversations - modeling for our students the kind of civil deliberation we can't seem to handle ourselves. As adults, we should engage the young people around us in conversations about politics, current events, and tough issues. We should ask for their help, their engagement, and their turnout on election day.

(CIRCLE also found that "being told to vote by a high school teacher and learning about voting predicted electoral engagement in 2012.")

And we should make sure that all young people in our communities - whatever their schooling, economic, or family situation - we should make that all young people have opportunities to meaningfully engage.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Who are the disengaged? A case study from Italy

When political participation falls - who specifically is being left behind?

The data I'm familiar with is all United States based, and points to two compelling reasons: "non-voters" are less engaged because they primarily come from less affluent, less educated backgrounds and thus are less informed about politics; or "non-voters" are less informed about politics because they don't really care - they prefer entertainment to news.

My colleagues at CIRCLE have some powerful numbers showing the systematic disenfranchisement of youth with no college experience. In the 2012 presidential election, young people with college experience voted at a rate of 55.9% - nearly twice that of their peers with no college experience (28.6%).

Markus Prior looks at disengagement through the lens of self-selection. In a high-choice media environment, people who prefer entertainment to news will naturally become less informed, and therefore vote less, he argues. His work looking at the effect of broadcast and cable television on voter turnout indicates that voting will go down when media choice goes up. If news is the only thing that's on, you might watch news. But if you can watch Chopped instead...well then, you'll become less informed.

So I was particularly interested this weekend when I hear an Italian economist make a totally different argument.

Ruben Durante, Assistant Professor of Economics, Sciences Po Paris (visiting Yale), says that in Italy, disengaged voters are the most politicized.

His recent working paper, Politics 2.0: the Multifaceted Effect of Broadband Internet on Political Participation, joint with F. Campante and F. Sobbrio, tracks recent voting trends in Italy.

Similar to Prior's work exploring the impacts of a high choice and low choice media environments, Durante is interested in the effect of Internet usage on political engagement. Does voting increase because people have more access to information, or does it go down because people have more access to entertainment?

In the high choice media environment, following the wide adoption of Internet, Durante found that voting went down. In the election after that, though...participation went up.

The reason for this, Durante found, was that the market responded to the decline in voting by coming up with new ways to engage voters.

In the 2013 election - in which participation rose dramatically, the newly formed Five Star Movement garnered a shocking 25% of the vote - more than any other party. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that this party grew out of an online, grassroots, movement.

Durante wanted to know who stopped voting in the years for which participation declined. So he compared voting rates for the major parties.

Over 30 parties participate in each election, with two parties dominating and the rest sharing around 10% of the vote.

Durante found that the turnout for the two big parties stayed static during the years voting declined. It was the "outsider" parties that took a big hit.

And who votes for "outsiders"? The radicals.

They have significantly higher levels of political activism, and roughly equal levels of "Interest in politics" and "Political information" compared to the mainstream Center-Left Party. The mainstream Center-Right party is loyal at the polls, but otherwise disengaged.

Thus, Durante concludes, that the voters who dropped out didn't do so because they were uneducated or didn't care. They dropped out because they got more news on the Internet - and that reality was too depressing for them.

But when a grassroots movement decided to move into the political realm, to become part of mainstream politics, it brought those voters back with them.

The Internet made them more engaged.

Monday, October 7, 2013

University City

As I took the train into downtown Philadelphia, the conductor called out, "UniVERSity CiTY" with a 1920s attitude. The view outside the train window brought me fond and hard memories of my industrial and post-industrial homes. 

University City. Sounds so full of hope and promise. The golden city at the heart of the American dream. Yet something deceptive seemed afoot. That moment when you realize the American dream is not available to everyone. When you realize the Emerald city is just a myth. When it feels like just another lie.

I later learned the area was named University City at the urging of the local institutions of higher education. It was a dangerous neighborhood. And as these institutions grew, they needed to clean up the neighborhood.

So they named a district. They subsidized businesses moving in. They put university patrols on the corners at night. They cleaned up the neighborhood. And intentionally gentrified it. The area is nicer now. Safer. It's a good thing for those there now. And a bad thing for those before. 

The American dream. University City.

Friday, October 4, 2013

It's okay to say sorry

Not too long ago I ran across an article called 23 Things Every Woman Should Stop Doing. I assumed the first thing on the list would be to stop reading articles telling you what to do.

But alas, the first point advised to stop apologizing.

I mostly thought the whole article was stupid, so I filed it away in the back of my mind and didn't give it much more thought.

Until I ran across an article called One easy secret to make people like and trust you more.

Their advice? Apologize more.

“People are often afraid to apologize for fear of looking weak,” said study author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor in Harvard Business School’s Negotiation, Organizations and Markets Unit.

“What we find in this paper is that it doesn’t harm perceptions of power. Instead, apologizing for things that aren’t your fault can show empathic concern, which leads people to trust you more.”

As mentioned in the quote above, the study looked specifically at "superfluous apologies" - saying sorry for bad weather, traffic, or other things that are clearly not your fault.
That may be different from apologizing for inconveniencing someone, but the point is still relevant.

I'm often surprised when I "superfluously" apologize and someone responds, "It's not your fault."

I find that confusing. I know it's not my fault that your basement flooded or your flight was delayed. I was saying sorry cause that kinda sucks and I'm sorry about that. That seems like a perfectly appropriate usage of the word "sorry," and apparently Harvard professors agree.

I don't really have a point to this post, so, you know...sorry.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Societies only get better...they never rot

Nick Pfosi / The Tufts Daily
I had the privilege of seeing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speak last night.

Whatever I may think of Justice Scalia or his rulings, I have tremendous respect for anyone who can make a clear and compelling argument for their view. It's okay for people to disagree with me, as long as they can explain their disagreement (more or less) politely and intelligibly .

As you may imagine, Justice Scalia was no disappointment in this regard.

He spoke about his commitment to an originalist view of the Constitution - interpreting laws based off what they were understood to mean at the time the people voted for them.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but when ratified in 1791 no one thought hanging was unconstitutional. Therefore capital punishment is constitutional even if we might consider it cruel and unusual today.

We, the people, can advocate and vote to change the law - federally or in our own state - but judges shouldn't interpret "cruel and unusual" based off today's standards, Justice Scalia argues.

Frankly, I've never been an originalist. Since at least elementary school, the idea of the Constition as a living document appealed to me. Our founding fathers were certainly courageous, bold, and innovative. I do have a lot of respect for them. But I don't think they had my interests in mind when crafting the Constitution.

They were creating a society from the perspective of wealthy, educated, property-owning, straight, white men. Even if you assume they were inclusive for their day, genuinely trying to craft a society that would be good for everyone, that narrow perspective is too exclusive to sustain a fair and equitable society.

So what's the danger of the "living document" model?

Justice Scalia argued that interpreting the Constitution based off today's morals only works if you assume societies only get better. That they never rot.

The originalist approach protects the people from corrupt regimes.

If modern morals deem that waterboarding or other forms of torture are not cruel and unusual, then it becomes okay because we can interpret it as constitutional. If modern morals deem that gay people aren't entitled to the same rights as straight people, that unborn fetuses have more rights than their mothers, that governments should do whatever it takes to stop terrorism - then that changes what becomes interpreted as constitutional.

And a political litmus test for judges becomes the only way to determine who will make a good Justice - who will share your moral interpretation.

This argument makes a lot of sense to me. I do think societies rot. I do think we need to protect ourselves from corrupt regimes.

But here's the problem.

There is a lot of corruption in our regime. And the system is not protecting us.

Justice Scalia said the people should take their concerns to Congress. That it's Congress' role to interpret modern needs and to implement laws adjusting to them.

That may be the originalist's view of Congress' purpose, but as you may have noticed, that venerable body is not getting anything done these days.

So where does that leave us? Left in endless shouting matches and political posturing?

The courts are our only hope for justice.

And maybe Justice Scalia is right. Maybe they shouldn't be. Maybe we should be more careful about creating a system that could strip our freedoms away just as easily as it can provide them.

But in the face of injustice, what else are we to do?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

HarvestFest is here again

The weather is amazing, leaves are changing, and pumpkin everything is on the shelves. And that means it must be time for Somerville Local First's annual HarvestFest fundraiser.

I serve on the board of this small non-profit which supports local businesses in Somerville and promotes understanding of the local movement.

Since this post is clearly a shameless promotion of an organization which I care about, I'll start with the fundraiser details (which I might call "deets" if I was more hip, which I'm not), then I'll explain why I think it's important.

Somerville Local First's 5th Annual HarvestFest
Saturday, October 19, 2013
Session 1: 2:00 to 5:00 PM
Session 2:
6:00 to 9:00 PM

Tickets range from $35-$55 depending on how generous you're feeling, and will get you delicious food from some of Somerville's best local restaurants, local beer from great Massachusetts brewers, live music, and some fun, harvesty games. Tickets can be bought online.

So, other than the fact that this will be a fun, awesome event (I feel like I should make posters proclaiming, "Free Beer!"), why should you care about the work of Somerville Local First (SLF)?

Well, I don't know about you, but I believe in the importance of a local economy.

My grandfather owned his own bakery. My mother and her family lived above the bakery, and she spent much of her childhood helping out in the store. I imagine it with an optimistic 50s lens. Everyone got along and life was just perfect.

That image may be idealized (" think?" I can hear my aunts saying), but nonetheless, the bakery was important enough to my family's character that my father built a model of the bakery. And sometimes, when we drove through the neighborhood the bakery had been in, my mother would say, "Right there...that's where the bakery was."

As an adult, I find that local business are the ones that really make an area a community. I walk in and people know my name. Business owners introduce themselves. People are friendly. It's almost enough to look at modern life with an optimistic 50s lens.

And more than that. local businesses have character. And not tchotchke-wearing, manufactured character ala the restaurant in office space, but real character. Whether it's my local gym where they have kettlebell painting contents, the local 80s themed restaurant where they host "Baywatch Bingo," or the retail store where I can pick up Somerville t-shirts and signs. These are the businesses that make my community.

And they're in real danger of going extinct. Big businesses can cut corners, save money in bulk, and squeeze out any hint of personality to become vastly efficient machines. Sometimes it's faster, easier, or cheaper to shop from big business, but rarely is it better.

If all of us bought from corporations all the time, then that little slice of 50s innocence would be lost. And that would be a real tragedy. Of course, you can't shop local all the time (disclaimer: my computer is not local), but when you can, please consider shopping local first.

Supporting these businesses is the work of SLF. Connecting them so they too can collaborate for bulk rates and jointly innovate for new endeavors. Supporting them in understanding laws, regulations, and changes in the political landscape. And educating people - not just consumers, but real, human people - about the value of shopping local.

Oh, and in case you missed it, here's the link to support this great work:

See you there!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Dysfunction junction, what's your function?

With the government shut down, the news is full of blustering politicians, polling over who Americans are blaming, and plenty of shut down humor.

Just like the newscasters, I have no solutions or special insight into the situation. So like the newscasters, I could tell stories of folks who are now out of work and wondering how to pay the bills. Or I could try to diagram the finger pointing and yelling happening in the capital. Or, I could just express my frustration as an average Joe.

But when I post to my blog, I try to think about what would add value - about what's missing from the conversation. So, here's what I'm going with:

I'm okay with the government shutdown.

I mean, not really - as a person living right here, right now, it drives me crazy and makes me angry in ways many of you are probably also experiencing. But let's put that aside for a moment.

Sometimes, when things seem to be going badly, I'll say to myself, "Well, at least I'm not in Europe during the Black Plague!" And this exercise is a bit like that. I wonder what the shut down will mean historically. And not just in another 17 years, but in another 50 years. Another 100 years.

Amid all the hot air on the news this morning, I caught one fiery politician saying that the founding father's would be disappointed in us. Disappointed that we couldn't make the government run.

And I thought, "Wait, would they?"

I mean, the founding fathers (bless their hearts) were kind of a hot mess.

Neither Rome nor our government were founded in a day, and the meetings of the Continental Congress and early United States Congress were quite heated and intense from what I understand. Politicians of the day had very real disagreements about what we should be as a country. Federalist or state favored. Industrial or agricultural. They even disagreed over who were people.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were vocal rivals. Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel over a political campaign that got particularly nasty. So lets not pretend that politics used to be all sunshine and butterflies. It's always been a tough business in this country.

Political blockage is part of our national character. And frankly it's intended to be. Yes, our elected officials can't get along, but really - neither can we. Drop me in the middle of a tea party gathering, and the conversations not gonna be any prettier than what I see on the news.

We can blame congress all we want. We can point fingers and decide who's to blame. But as long as I literally don't understand the views of half the country and as long as they literally don't understand me, nothing is going to change.

I'll keep electing Massachusetts liberals, and other parts of the country will keep electing tea party Republicans. And frankly, I don't want my guys to compromise.

So sure, let's shut the government down. Let's realize that the system is broken and we need to fix it. And by "we" I don't mean that congress needs to stop acting like brats and learn to play nice. I mean we. You and me.

We need to learn to get along. Need to learn to see eachother's points of view. Need to listen and to understand. Need to figure out how to compromise without sacrificing our ideals. This is our country. And fixing it is in our hands.

Oh, and sorry to everyone who's out of a job as a result of this national lesson. That really sucks.